Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, on Monday, announced a seven-point action plan to tackle air pollution, ranging from measures to control dust and mitigating hot spots to a mobile application for complaints and a “war room” for monitoring. He also requested the neighbouring states to come up with an alternative to stubble burning and to implement anti-pollution measures suggested by the Supreme Court in 2019 for 11 thermal power plants operating within a 300 km radius of Delhi.
The Capital is inching towards an air pollution spike, with winds slowing and the mornings getting colder, and a large number of crop stubble fires being detected over northwestern India. In mid-September, the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority wrote to Punjab and Haryana, asking the states to control crop stubble burning cases. On its part, the Centre has talked about “airshed management” — which means scientifically identifying regional airsheds that have common airflows due to topography and meteorology — to tackle the problem holistically.
The Delhi government’s steps are much needed. According to University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index, a pollution index that translates particulate air pollution into its impact on life expectancy, residents of Delhi could see 9.4 years added to their lives if pollution was reduced to meet the World Health Organization guidelines; 6.5 years if pollution met India’s national standard. This year, Covid-19 exacerbates the challenge. Several studies have suggested that people whose lungs are affected by air pollution over the years are at higher mortality risk.
Delhi and other states need to implement their policies and strengthen monitoring systems. A new real-time source apportionment study of Delhi’s air pollution by IIT-Kanpur shows that key particulate matter sources in Delhi are dust, inorganic constituents (chloride), carcinogenic (chromium, nickel, arsenic, lead) and other elements (chlorine, zinc, copper, manganese). The presence of these shows that the sources are not just local but also regional.
The study points towards the need for three reforms (move away from fossil fuels for cooking; a rapid transition towards electric vehicles; and shifting towards less-polluting technologies). But only one state taking these measures will not have the desired impact because air pollution is not just Delhi’s problem. It is a regional problem, and, indeed, a national crisis.